Jockey Rachael Blackmore made history at Cheltenham today as she became the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle.
The daughter of a dairy farmer and a teacher, the jockey, 31, from Killenuale in County Tipperary, was not reared in a racing family but has been competing professionally in horse racing since 2015.
Today Rachael, who has been described as a ‘reluctant heroine’, couldn’t hide her delight as she became the first female jockey to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle as she guided Honeysuckle to a brilliant victory at Cheltenham.
She produced the heavily-backed 11-10 favourite to lead between the final two flights and she bounded up the hill to go on and win in impressive fashion, bagging the £180,000 prize.
Sportswoman Rachael Blackmore, 31, made history today as she won the Champion Hurdle title at Cheltenham to claim the biggest ever prize for a female jockey
Speaking of Honeysuckle, Rachael said: ‘I’m speechless, to be honest – she’s just so incredible.
‘I can’t believe we’ve won a Champion Hurdle. Kenny Alexander (owner) and Peter Molony (racing manager) are both at home with their families. It’s a pity they can’t be here today.
‘When Goshen headed off and then came back in I was just slightly worried, but she did everything I wanted her to do throughout the race and it’s just unbelievable.
‘Henry produces her every day in that kind of form for me to just steer round. I’m so thankful to be a part of her (Honeysuckle) – it’s all about her.
Rachael, who did not grow up in a racing family, couldn’t hide her delight as she became the first female jockey to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle as she guided Honeysuckle to a brilliant victory at Cheltenham
‘She’s getting better and improving. Her run the last day was a career-best and again today. It’s phenomenal.’
Rachael is one of three children – her younger sister is a lawyer and her older brother a graphic designer – and initially dreamed of being a vet.
She has previously recalled a school trip to Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable when a young girl’s imagination and interest in racing was fuelled by a close-up view of the great three-time Champion Hurdler Istabraq.
She said: ‘It’s funny when I think back to when my interest in racing was sparked. It was all about Istabraq then.
Following the historic race earlier today, Rachael said she felt ‘speechless’ and said she ‘couldn’t believe it’
‘It’s hard for me to think now that Honeysuckle means the same to other people, but when you are in the moment, or in a bubble like I am, it is hard to reflect on it.’
Despite her ambition to be a vet, she ended up studying equine science in Limerick.
She initially wanted to be an amateur jockey and told the Irish Times in 2019 that she had ‘never envisaged the professional jockey route’.
But her big break came in 2011, when she partnered Stowaway Pearl on her first winner at the Tipperary Ladies’ Handicap Hurdle in Thurles, before she went professional in March 2015.
Blackmore (pictured winning the National Hunt Award in 2019) previously revealed she never intended to become a jockey and had hoped to be a vet
The jockey went on to ride her first professional winner in September 2015.
Her first Cheltenham Festival winner came in 2019 and she gained her first Grade 1 race victory in Ireland in April of that year, finishing the season with 90 winners and taking the runner-up spot in the Irish jump racing Champion Jockey competition behind Paul Townend for the 2018–19 season.
She finished third in the curtailed 2019–20 season and is particularly linked to the stable of trainer Henry de Bromhead
Despite her growing celebrity, Rachael keeps details about her private life private.
Rachael, who has been described as a ‘reluctant heroine’ in the past, tends to keep her life off the racecourse private
Fellow jockey Lizzie Kelley previously described her humble attitude in 2019, telling The Guardian: ‘Rachael Blackmore cannot take a compliment for love nor money. You could tell her that she’s the best thing since sliced bread until you’re blue in the face and she still wouldn’t believe you.’
Socially, she has a close circle of friends from school and university, and is said to be dating fellow jockey Brian Hayes.
Speaking to The Times, she said: ‘I like shopping, but I have to be in the right form and mood. I don’t like anything too tight, but I like dressing up and am a typical girl at the end of the day.’
After Honeysuckle won the 2020 Irish Champion Hurdle, there was talk of a Champion Hurdle tilt, but trainer Henry de Bromhead and owner Kenny Alexander opted for another Grade One instead — the less prestigious Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. She won.
Fellow jockeys have previously described Rachael’s humble attitude, saying she ‘cannot take a compiment’ (pictured, after winning today)
But when Honeysuckle followed up a narrow seasonal debut win in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in November by easing home 10 lengths clear of Abacadabras to land a second Irish Champion, the lure of the big prize proved irresistible.
At the time, Rachael revealed the performance felt as good as it looked, explaining: ‘She gave me an incredible feeling and felt a lot sharper than she’d ever felt before. Watching it back, I am sure there were plenty of people who thought I was making a move quite early, but it felt so right.
‘She was taking me a lot more than she has done before — she was better, sharper. It was a fantastic performance.’
Significantly, Honeysuckle’s jumping, considered a little slow and careful 12 months ago, looked up to the most rigorous examination.
The daughter of a dairy farmer and a teacher, the rider was not reared in a racing family but has been competing professionally in horse racing since 2015 (pictured in 2019)
Ahead of the race today, Rachael explained: ‘Her jumping was never bad, it just wasn’t two-mile Champion Hurdle style. There wasn’t too much attack at her hurdles but she was doing that at Leopardstown.
‘There will be no let-up from the get-go in the Champion Hurdle. You don’t want to be missing or slow at the third or fourth hurdle — that can be race over. You need to be sharp and on the ball with everything. I have every confidence in her.’
Last season Honeysuckle delivered Rachael’s only win of the Festival, a memorable ride as she grabbed a ground-saving move on the inside rail around the final bend which helped her edge out great rival Paul Townend on Benie De Dieux.
But she admitted she left the Festival feeling frustrated. Captain Guinness, who she rode in Tuesday afternoon’s Arkle Novices’ Chase, was still in contention when brought down two out in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle; Minella Indo was mugged by Champ in the final strides when looking home and hosed in the RSA Chase; and Monalee, her Gold Cup mount, was a strong-finishing close fourth after being hampered.
‘I went home extremely grateful that Honeysuckle did what she does best because winners are extremely hard to get at the Festival,’ Rachael said. ‘But when you have the calibre of opportunity that I did, there are some things I did not like looking back.’
After today’s success, there is Friday’s Gold Cup. No female jockey has won that race and Rachael will ride 5-1 third favourite A Plus Tard.
He leapt up the pecking order when winning the three-mile Grade One Savills Chase under Darragh O’Keeffe at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting. Rachael could have ridden old ally Minella Indo but her and A Plus Tard have history.
Schoolchildren write regularly to Blackmore and her postman could be busy if she wins again
It is a far cry from the days when ‘just getting a ride at Cheltenham was a massive deal’ for Rachael, who is again pressing Townend in the Irish Jockeys’ Championship, trailing him by six (90-84).
Rachael explained: ‘There was a time I didn’t think I would even ride at Cheltenham, let alone in a Gold Cup where I have the choice of two rides and both having great chances.
‘A Plus Tard has been a very good horse for me and gave me my first Cheltenham Festival winner. He is a Grade One winner over two miles and three miles and a very classy individual. The last time he was ridden to get the trip, because it was a bit of an unknown for him.
‘I thought it was a very good performance and he looks to have really enjoyed the step up in distance. He is stepping up in distance again but a horse like him is only improving.’